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What is it about pigeons that enables them to survive in cities?

Dear Cecil:

We are sitting around talking about pigeon excrement and Cecil Adams and now we are wondering: (1) what is unique about the pigeon that can allow it to survive in or select for the urban environment? And please don't give us bullshit about how pigeons can survive in rubbish or excrement, or enjoy crowds and noises. We are interested in physiological and ecological answers, not conclusions based on observational behavior. (2) What are the mechanics of The Straight Dope? Do you have a staff? Where do you find out all this stuff? What percentage of questions can you, can't you, and do you answer?

Gary S., Baltimore

Cecil replies:

(1) Your attempt at writing prose that appears to be scientific intimidates me no end — I guess I’m pretty lucky that there are, indeed, a couple of “ecological” factors involved in the pigeon question and not just “conclusions based on observational behavior” (by which I presume you mean “observed behavior,” unless you’re referring to documented cases of peeping Tom-ism by pigeons or the observance of pigeon religious holidays, in which case I’m afraid you’ve really got me stumped). Common urban pigeons, Columba livia, appear to be native to North Africa, where they usually dwell on narrow cliff ledges that might be compared to the urban roosts they take up in the nooks and crannies of large stone buildings. Pigeons are also among the first birds to have been domesticated, and a large proportion of any urban pigeon population is assumed to be “feral,” or once domestic and now — by virtue of escape — wild. Instead of being afraid of humans, these pigeons are used to being fed by them; they know how to take advantages of food sources that other species of birds do not — specifically, little old ladies in tennis shoes.

(2) Fat chance!

Cecil Adams

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